Just a quick update to say I’ve finished the first draft of my fourth manuscript. This one’s a young adult fantasy novel, and it’s been a lot of fun to write. I already know I need to make some pretty big changes before I try to sell it to anyone—basically, I need to spruce up the setting and organise scenes/events better—but I love the characters and their journeys.
I’d like to say I look forward to the rewrite but I totally don’t. I’m going to have to be so organised… there will be lists… ugh, no, I can’t think about this just now or my rough-draft-finished euphoria will straight up vanish. Suffice to say I’ve got plenty left to do when I come back to this draft in a month or two.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to celebrate, I offer up this occasion gladly.
In November of 2014, I moved further north than I’d ever lived before—to Dundee, on the east coast (ish) of Scotland. There were a lot of warnings about the weather, and how oppressive it could be in winter, but my husband and I were pleasantly surprised. “Manageable,” we concluded in the spring of 2015. “Not that bad.”
Fast-forward to last winter, when suddenly the place I lived felt less like Dundee and more like The Pit Of Eternal Night. There seemed to be two types of darkness: day-dark and night-dark. It shook me to feel so disconnected from nature, even though I don’t consider myself a particularly outdoorsy person. Seasonal affective disorder reared its ugly head, and I clung to my blue daylight lamp like a lifeline—even though it strengthened the impression of being on some spaceship where light from an actual sun was a distant dream.
Given the opportunity to write about an oppressive (not snowy—oppressive) winter, I could easily call specifics to mind. The days that barely dawned, the damp feel of the air, how grey a city can look and how little the yellow streetlights do to combat it. Each time I move somewhere, there’s a different feeling, a different way of life, a different slant to the seasons—in short, a different everything, and it makes me leery of writing about any place I haven’t lived, and even about places that I have. My memories of the Netherlands are all cycling, school, train stations. Do I know what it’s like to live there now, as an adult? Could I write it convincingly? Does Alexander McCall Smith ever worry if he’s getting Edinburgh “right” in his books?
With fantasy, local knowledge problems don’t exist in the same way. You come up with a world and a climate and you stick with it. It’s inspired by the real world, or what you imagine the real world to be, but it isn’t bounded by it; that draws me, but lately I’ve been enjoying books set in the real world too. Moving around hasn’t made me any less curious about all the other places out there, and reading books by authors with local knowledge is the only way I’ll get to experience them. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng sent me to Malaysia; Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought me to Nigeria. The fact that they were novels—not nonfic, which I still don’t have the stomach for—kept me invested. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a book like that, one that sets the reader firmly in one locale, expertly written—but it’s interesting to think about.
Could you write about your town, city, village, if you wanted to? Would you want to? And how much complaining about the weather would there be?
Orcs. Elves. Trolls. Goblins. You know them… I know them… we all know them. Reading high fantasy and playing fantasy games—tabletop or system-based—produces a familiarity with fantasy races that can make them seem just a bit, well… tedious. Hence, I propose a new swathe of fantasy races. Really original ones. Not at all derivative. Are you ready?
The name says it all: little green creatures obsessed with space. Found at high elevation on clear nights. Will beat you up for a look at your telescope.
Front part of an eagle… back part of a spider. Can shoot web from its spinner, but really doesn’t have to; most prey are too busy puking in fear and disgust. “It’s a bird—no, it’s a spider! Oh god, it’s both!” are frequent last words.
Hate trees. Will shoot you with a blunderbuss if you try to sing the ancient song of your people. Like to spray paint naughty images on hedges.
Basically beaver people. Live near rivers. Really cute. Pretend to hate politics but spend all their time on the Beavnet sharing barely fact-checked articles.
Not humans who occasionally turn into sausages, but rather humans who, on the night of the full moon, transform into their worst selves. It’s hard to tell from an outsider’s perspective whether someone is a wereworst or just a genuine dickhead, though practiced wereworsts lock themselves up in their rooms during the transformation. (Unfortunately, many of them still have an internet connection.)
Roly-poly creatures who are just looking for a home. Will often roll into the midst of a heated debate or awkward break-up. “Oh, you don’t want me here? It’s… it’s fine. I’ll go. I have nowhere else to be, but I’ll go.” Their specialty is making you feel bad for telling them to go away, then lingering in case you change your mind and apologise.
What do you think? Bring on the modern mythology books, right? Okay, just kidding, but it’s pretty fun to think of fantasy races, both existing and new, and wonder what would work in a book… and what wouldn’t. Do you have any creations to add?
Coming up with fantasy place names that haven’t been used extensively elsewhere is an ongoing challenge in my writing life. I don’t want to name my glittering empire after a quiet village in England, after all, but I don’t want to use so many hyphens and accent marks that my names are unreadable, either. So what’s the happy medium?
Well, apparently—at least for me—it’s Dragon Age names. Since a false start on the first game last year, the various place names in DA keep occurring to me when I’m trying to use the fantasy place name generator known as my brain. My fantasy place name generator is pretty flawed to start with—it likes to just throw syllables and bits of various languages together until something sounds right—but to make matters worse, often when something sounds right it’s because I’ve already seen it.
These days, it’s because I’ve seen it before in Dragon Age. Who can blame me? It’s got a lot of great, atmospheric place names. Here, don’t believe me—see for yourself:
There’s the empire of Orlais, a world of high fashion where a lady once kept a live songbird in her birdcage-hair, the kingdom of Ferelden, drab and full of dogs, the forbidding-sounding Tevinter Imperium, and all the little places in between and within. Being surrounded by these names as I play settles them in my mind until I (apparently) can’t distinguish them from my own creations. It’s a pain! But it does help me think about my name-creation process, and decide what I like about certain fantasy names and not others.
When it comes down to it, the thing I like about DA names is the simplicity. When coming up with names of places or characters, the realer they sound, the better—assuming the “point” isn’t to set these characters or places apart from human society. But eventually, won’t every realistic fantasy name have been used in some story? There are so many worlds like the DA one: in books, movies, games—you can only put letters together in so many likely ways. So won’t we run out?
I think we will, to be honest, so I try not to worry too much about using the same place names as obscure fantasy novels from the 70s—but it’d suck to accidentally use the same name as some big-name author or big-name game. My process is the following:
Look at a lot of maps
Write down real place names I like
Keep in mind likely additions to place names (“X Castle” “Y’s Reach”, “Z-wood”)
Alter them subtly or throw them together
Google the result!
Creators can always try their luck with online generators too, though I’d warn against comical results like “Fieldbush”. Usually, the answer isn’t in the generated content but somewhere between twenty other options. When I’m writing a story and can’t think of a name, I often write “XXX” in the text to find and replace later. With how long it takes to come up with a good name, who can blame me?
Anyway, that’s my process. I’d be interested to hear what others do to come up with names—and whether they have also been victimised by media like Dragon Age stealing names they would have liked to use. Sigh. Oh well—I guess BioWare got there before me… this time.
[add] I have just been informed by a friend that Thedas is short for “The Dragon Age Setting”—the perfect fun fact addition to this post!
Lately I’ve heard more & more people say that the sheer amount of romance in various media (mainly YA, but other things too) isunnecessary. I agree. I shivered with pleasure at the lack of romance in Pacific Rim (let viewers decide how to view the main pair! hooray!) and I’ve spent the past month and a bit catching up with Elementary, a show that focuses on the partnership between a man and a woman who aren’t sleeping together or constantly wishing they were sleeping together.
These films & shows make a nice change from the will-they-won’t-they dynamic we’ve grown used to, and they don’t bore me the way that tired trope does. Romantic tension is exciting, but it’s not the only kind of tension that exists, and I think the world is ready for a little more variety in the romance (or lack thereof) department. The message I’m getting from many vocal sources is clear: we don’t need unnecessary romance in our media.
Is there a clear distinction between necessary romance and unnecessary romance, though? Something that appeals to me might seem forced to someone else, and vice versa. Are there many authors who write romance into their work thinking “this is dull, and I don’t believe in it, but I’m going to write it anyway”? Of course, I know there must be creators who include romance because they think they have to, but I’m also certain a lot of creators who have written “unnecessary romances” don’t do it on purpose; I’m sure many miss the mark quite naturally despite believing in the work they do. Is it because they unconsciously believe they have to include romance, and thereby don’t give its inclusion enough care or thought?
Maybe. I know I used to think a story had to include romance to be interesting, and it’s only in the past six years or so that I’ve changed my mind. Seeing characters care about others is the most compelling thing for me—but that care doesn’t have to stem from desire. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if YA authors hear—from every possible source—that YA revolves around romance. So maybe the answer is just “resist that urge”. Resist the urge to condescend to readers, thinking “they won’t be interested if I don’t give them a love interest”. Resist the urge to think that appointment of the title “love interest” makes a character inherently interesting. I think authors will have an easier time changing this way of thinking than, say, action movie directors, who always seem to need a hot chick to fill the screen and haven’t realised women can do things other than fall in love with protagonists yet. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) is lovingly excluded from this generalisation.
Can authors anticipate unfailingly what will make a romance ring true—or false—to readers? Probably not, but I think focusing on what characters actually mean to each other is a lot more compelling than the constant “they loved each other, they loved each other, they were everything to each other” tell-don’t-show of some books. Maybe it’s not love. Maybe it’s mutual need, or just a desire to see a friendly face, or—are we allowed to admit this exists?—physical attraction without an emotional bond beneath. Maybe it’s simply that they make each other laugh.
And maybe it’s not even a romance. Maybe it’s a friendship, which—as I hope some of my pop culture examples have shown—can be just as compelling. Talk to me about the friendship between Jess & Trish on Netflix’s Jessica Jones sometime if you want to lose an hour of your time; I promise I won’t shut up for at least that long. If you’ve read the Sirantha Jax series (and not enough people have), talk to me about the deep bond between Jax and Velith. I’ll rant for days…
…but maybe you’d like to be the one ranting. Here’s your chance: what are some of your favourite fictional friendships?
Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff tells the story of a book critic whose childhood love of language has been spoiled by a lifetime of reading. We had to read it for senior honors English, and nothing has been the same since. Okay—I’m joking, mostly, but the whole not-loving-the-stuff-you-used-to-love thing is one of my greatest fears. Sometimes when thoughts about predictability and consistency and a million other things keep me from enjoying a book or movie as much as I might have if I was thirteen again, I want to bash my head against a wall until all prior knowledge falls out. HOWEVER, there is a flipside. A beautiful, high-shine side of the coin:
Seeing things done well, and being able to recognise when it happens.
“Is that all they told you?” Van Atta asked in astonishment. At Leo’s affirmative shrug, he threw back his head and laughed. “Security, I suppose,” Van Atta went on when he’d stopped chuckling. “Are you in for a surprise. Well, well. I won’t spoil it.” Van Atta’s sly grin was as irritating as a familiar poke in the ribs.
Too familiar—oh, hell, Leo thought, this guy knows me from somewhere. And he thinks I know him… Leo’s polite smile became fixed in mild panic. He had met thousands of GalacTech personnel in his eighteen-year career. Perhaps Van Atta would say something soon to narrow the possibilities.
I was a little confused when I came across this in my camera uploads because I generally only take pictures of passages I love. And I do love this passage—but not because it’s poignant or anything. Instead, I love it because it shows one of my favourite authors laying down a subtle hook. Bujold’s Falling Free didn’t start out with explosions or robberies or dramatic tension; it started with a routine check-up, but still managed not to be boring. With the revelation that Van Atta is someone the main character should know but can’t remember comes sympathy—who hasn’t been in that situation?—and interest. How do they know each other? And what’s the thing Leo is about to be surprised by?
Thinking back on other hooks I’ve loved in the past, I tend to enjoy the more in-your-face kind where a character is about to undergo a big change: The Reaping in The Hunger Games, or the girl running away from the farm (hey, that’s Bujold too), or some obscure ceremony like the choosing in Divergent. Keeping the main character a mystery helps too. Why is she running? Who’s after her? Questions like that, even if they’re nowhere near as subtle as “damn it this guy knows me—how?”
For others it might be different. I’m personally very tired of the “mysterious stranger walks into a dimly-lit inn” type fantasy starts, but there might be fantastic ways to pull that off too. The only thing I can say for sure is that if you’re a nerd who likes to see things done well, having your phone camera handy when you’re reading isn’t a bad thing. Learn by doing, yeah—but learn by seeing others succeed, too!
Anyway, getting back to the existential fear at the start of this post, I’ll probably never be able to enjoy books as indiscriminately as I would have if I’d stayed thirteen. On the other hand, when I was thirteen I was writing a book about a green-haired girl finding an enchanted egg in the forest and needing to bring it to the emperor. It had no subtlety whatsoever—or paragraph breaks—so I’ll take what I can get, and deal with that unwelcome analytical part of my mind that comes with experience. There are so many amazing authors out there that I still won’t have too little to read.
Luke rides around on Rey’s back in a swamp, assuming this is part of standard jedi training. Rey doesn’t question it.
Kylo Ren develops an obsession with Rey. Who is she? he wonders as he destroys expensive equipment. He waits for someone to ask what he’s upset about; no one does.
Finn holds hands with all his new friends on the rebel base until he’s captured during an attack by the First Order. Poe tries to save him but is captured as well. They keep up the fun hero swagger until they see Kylo Ren is wearing… The Jacket. They exchange a look of utter hatred, vowing revenge. That’s their friendship jacket.
Some Stormtroopers besides Finn have shown signs of growing a conscience. Finn is frozen Han-style and hung up on a wall as a warning to rebellious Stormtroopers. There are rumors that First Order leadership only wanted to try using the freezey machine again, but they are lies. (They are not lies.)
Rey returns early from jedi training to save Finn and Poe, losing her arm in the process. She only manages to save Poe and BB8.
Years have passed while working out a plan to save Finn. Rebel leaders have realized they should have asked him about Stormtrooper training and how it might be undone back when he was on their base. Damn it, they think, why do we only ever think of these things in hindsight?
Rey, Poe, Chewbacca, BB8 and R2D2 disguise themselves as investors and head into the First Order base where Finn is kept. Luke comes too, but spends the entire time cracking jokes about the lifespans of mentor characters who accompany their mentees for too long. He hasn’t been the same since spending a decade alone on the top of a hill.
They save Finn but come across top secret plans in the process, top secret plans for… a death star.
No one should be surprised, but everyone is surprised. The rebels face overwhelming odds. While trying to dismantle Death Star 4.0 the rebels recover the friendship jacket and take turns wearing it, but now it smells like lonely sith lord. Kylo Ren’s tragic backstory is given as an afterthought during a confrontation with Giant Chair Man. Kylo Ren is very sorry, but secretly pleased that his own downfall could so closely mirror his idol’s—almost like it was planned that way. Death Star 4.0 goes the way of Death star 1, 2 and 3.
There’s a party in the woods. Han appears as a jedi-ghost. “It’s not what you know,” he says, gripping someone’s shoulder. “It’s who you know.” He winks.
NaNo 2015 is officially under my belt! Despite a visit from my globe-trotting parents, I made it to 50k words this year and—most amazingly—continued to enjoy the story as I wrote it. Having a more fleshed-out plan was an absolute lifesaver, and while I’ve already got my eye on things I’ll need to change, the days of “where the hell am I going with this and who would ever want to read it” seem to be over; I don’t miss them.
The whole process of writing constantly baffles me. Somehow it’s always just as hard as it’s always been while simultaneously getting easier—and yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I’m not sure how else to explain it. It takes just as much discipline and soul-searching as it ever has, but the years of experience do seem to be paying off. There’s the knowledge that I’ve done it before and can do it again… the knowledge that I’ll be able to change things I don’t like… the confidence that there are people who like my writing voice… etc. I’ve come a long way from writing two thirds of a novel then revising and rewriting those two thirds for years. Finishing something is the first step in getting to this point, but it certainly isn’t the only one. I’m reminded of that story about the pottery class where a teacher grades one half of the class on how many pots they make and the other half on their very best pot; without fail, the quantity side of the class makes the superior pots. This analogy probably has limited use, as revision is a necessary skill—one I definitely need to improve on—but I can’t help agreeing with the general premise. I learned a lot more from writing several complete first drafts than I did from polishing incomplete stories to death.
Anyway, the writing process still dips way too close to soul-crushing torture at times, but there’s comfort in knowing I’ve overcome it before. That’s what makes it easier, even when nothing makes it easier. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m gubbed from nano, and taking a break until Monday on that story. In the meantime I’ll be writing the synopsis & query letters for the book I finished in September. Wish me luck!
Christmas? No! Thanksgiving? Not even close! (Or, well, not quite.)
The most wonderful time of the year, in my totally-not-universal opinion, is November–National Novel Writing Month–and the lead-up to it. I did NaNoWriMo for the first time as a fresh-faced second-year at uni in 2010, and I’ve never looked back. I did skip the event in 2013, but I hated that so much I’ve resolved never to do it again unless the situation calls for it. There’s just something about gearing up to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month with millions of others that lights a fire under me. It doesn’t sound comfortable, and it isn’t, but it’s fun. And torture. In the words of Ron Weasley:
If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo before, you can read up on it here. I’m very evangelical about it, though of course it doesn’t work for everyone, and it draws some fair criticism. As far as I’m concerned, though, however you use the creative energy NaNoWriMo gives you is good, regardless of whether it’s according to guidelines. I personally never try to write a complete novel during nano because my novels are never 50,000 words; the shortest complete one I’ve written is 86,000 words, and I’m not even going to attempt that in one month.
To get back to the matter at hand—additional proof that this is the best time of the year—I have to admit that the American pumpkin obsession plays into my love of autumn as well. Anything that can pair sweetly with cinnamon and cloves, or be turned into a delicious soup made more delicious by the addition of soy sauce, is a star in my eyes. Yum. And the changing leaves & rain-lashed windows don’t make too bad a backdrop for staying in and writing either.
So: I’m feeling pretty good. And if you, like me, are gearing up for nano, might I suggest this hilariously written post on writing outlines? This year I’m determined to be less crap at planning, and I suggest any fellow bad-planners do the same. I’ll let you know how it goes!